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Uttar Pradesh: ASI team unearths remains of 1500-year-old temple from Gupta era with inscriptions in Shankhalipi script

The temple was discovered during routine clean-up operations when ASI decided to excavate around two half-buried pillars

The Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) has discovered the remains of an ancient temple from the reign of the Gupta empire in Bilsarh village in Etah district of Uttar Pradesh, reported The Times of India (TOI).

Bilsarh has been a protected archaeological site since the year 1928. Around monsoon season every year, the ASI undertakes scrubbing work at the protected sites. During one such routine cleanup in August this year, the team excavated around two previously discovered decorative pillars in order to understand their significance. The decision was taken by ASI Superintendent (Agra circle) archaeologist Vasant Swarnkar. In this process, he and his team found an ancient staircase bearing inscriptions in the Shankhalipi script (used between the 4th and 8th centuries CE).

On deciphering the script, it was unearthed that the staircase bore the title of ‘Sri Mahendradity.’ TOI reported that ‘Sri Mahendradity’ was the title accorded to Gupta ruler Kumaragupta I. He ruled over north-central India during the 5th century (CE). The ancient stairs led to an undiscovered structural temple that was built during the Gupta era for Brahmins, Jains and Buddhists. The recent discovery is significant in the sense that to date only two other structural temples from the Gupta age has been found.

Staircase with two decorative pillars found by ASI in Etah, image via TOI

According to a report by Financial Express, the entire village is situated on an ancient mound, and the ASI-protected spot where the temple was found has four pillars. Of the four pillars, two are circular and free-standing and are located at two different corners. Both those pillars have inscriptions in Gupta Brahmi script that have been deciphered as from Kumaragupta’s time, and papers have been already published on them. Vasant Swarnkar had decided to study the other two pillars standing half-buried at another corner, and close to each other.

These are flat rectangular pillars, placed parallel and facing the same direction. The front faces of both the pillars have images of the yaksas, ganas, and various geometrical motifs. Since these two pillars were not free-standing, Dr. Sawarkar thought that they could be parts of some underlying architecture, which led him to start the digging. Soon the stairs were found, and more carvings appeared on the pillars which were under the ground. It became apparent that the pillars were located at the entrance of an ancient temple.

1500 year old temple is the third such structural temple found so far

According to history Professor Manvendra Pundhir from Aligarh Muslim University (AMU), the other structural temples were identified as Dashavatara Temple (Deogarh) and Bhitargaon Temple (Kanpur Dehat). He added that the Guptas were the first to build structural temples, a distinct change from the ancient rock-cut temples. Professor Pundhir emphasised, “The Etah pillars are well-sculpted, better than the earlier examples in which only the lower sections were carved. The decorative pillars and staircase are a bit more advanced than the earlier ones.”

Inscription found in Etah matched a horse statue from the era of Gupta Empire

The Archaeological Survey of India will now protect the remains of the 1500-year-old temple and place a shed, signboard for visitors. While speaking about the discovery, ASI Superintendent (Agra circle) Vasant Swarnkar pointed out that the inscription on the staircase resembled the inscription on a horse statue that was discovered in Lakhimpur Khera. He sent the images to well-known epigraphist Dr Devendra Handa. The horse statue, which was kept at the State Museum in Lucknow, was inspected by the ASI team and it was confirmed that the inscriptions were in the Shankhalipi script and dated from the era of Gupta ruler Kumaragupta I.

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Staff reporter at OpIndia

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